WinStar // 1996 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // May 30th, 2000
I lived in a world of shame.
Bastard Out Of Carolina is based on the novel by Dorothy Allison, was written for the screen by Anne Meredith and marked the directorial debut of actress Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family, Addams Family Values, The Grifters).
This made-for-television movie has a somewhat storied history as it was originally supposed to air on Ted Turner's TNT network but was pulled from the schedule at the last minute after Mr. Turner saw the film and deemed it inappropriate for his network. Enter the Showtime channel, which came to the films rescue and broadcast it to great critical acclaim.
Set in rural South Carolina in the late '50s and early '60s the film is the story of a mother, Anney (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her first child who has the nickname of Bone (Jena Malone). Bone is born to a difficult life. The bastard of the title, her very entrance to the world is marred by a near tragedy when Anney goes flying through a truck windshield after an accident on the way to the delivery room. For Bone things go from bad to worse. Anney meets a man, falls and love and marries. The father that Bone dreamed of having, indeed the only person who she would truly love, he is robbed from her in another car accident shortly after Anney has given birth to her second daughter.
Time passes and Bone grows content living with her grandmother, Anney and baby sister. Anney, however, wants to see her children have a better life. In time she meets a friend of her brother Earle (Michael Rooker), Glen Waddell (Ron Eldard). They date, fall in love and marry. A violent, troubled man, the entrance of Waddell into her life marks the end of Bone's childhood.
For as much as Waddell loves Anney and the film goes to great lengths to show that side of him, he has a cold anger for Bone. A cycle of physical, sexual and mental abuse begins with Bone being the recipient of every one of Waddell's disappointments, imagined slights or bad days.
The violence upon Bone grows to such a level that soon she is going to the hospital for broken bones and intense abuse. After every beating Anney threatens to leave and Waddell promises things will change. They, of course, never do. Following one very brutal beating, everyone is at a family gathering where Bone gets a little drunk and lets the extent of her injuries be seen. This launches the men of the family into a violent frenzy that puts Waddell within an inch of losing his life.
Anney leaves and Bone goes to live with her aunt. Wanting a reunion with his wife, Waddell comes to visit Bone and knowing that the only way Anney will return to him is if Bone comes home as well, he tries to charm her into returning to live with him. Maintaining her focus and finally letting loose with her feelings about "daddy," Waddell is driven over the edge. Violence and a brutal rape ensues with Anney showing up to see the tail end of it. Shocked, angered and confused, it is still not enough to drive Anney away from Waddell. The film ends with Bone realizing that some things will not and cannot change, that no matter how hard she tries, she will grow up becoming her mother. Becoming a bastard out of Carolina.
Bastard Out Of Carolina is not an easy movie to watch. It is unflinching in its depiction of violence and frustrating in its unwillingness to judge its characters.
The film uses an adult Bone (Laura Dern), as a narrator to tell its tale. Bone recites the tale, as a story. It is as if Bone is watching everything through the camera. She disassociates herself from the proceedings, becoming almost a third party. The things that happen, happen to her body but not to her. She hides her injuries, not just from her mother and the world but also from herself. In construction, the film sometimes feels like a documentary. Everything that happens is shown in a very matter-of-fact manner. The film's sense of objectivity is its greatest asset and also the thing that causes the greatest level of frustration. Most will find themselves wanting to yell at the screen for Anney to do something, to kill the bringer of all the abuse, or at the very least, to leave the son-of-a-bitch. The style of the film drives home the point that people like this exist all around us and there is very little anyone can do to stop them except to pay attention.
For her first project, Huston shows that she has a stellar eye for casting. In the role of Anney, a woman who is torn between choosing her firstborn or her current husband, Jennifer Jason Leigh (eXistenZ, Short Cuts, Fast Times at Ridgmont High), is fabulous. It is a complicated and tricky character that she pulls off with ease. She makes choices that many would find repulsive but they are the honest choices of a woman lost and confused. While I sometimes find myself tiring of the lack of range in the material Leigh chooses, there is no denying the skill and sensitivity she brings to difficult subject matter. In many ways I could not imagine Bastard Out Of Carolina without her.
The real star of Bastard Out Of Carolina however, is Jena Malone (For Love of the Game, Stepmom, Contact) as Bone. It staggers my mind to see someone this young give a performance as moving and as full of depth as she does. Never content to go for the easy choice, Malone's performance runs the spectrum of emotions. She has a smile that can light a room but here when she does smile it is without joy or hope. The sense of "deadness" she manages to convey in someone so young is heartbreaking. Malone manages to give a face to all the news reports we have all seen over the years of abuse towards children and her work manages to worm its way into the mind, staying there long after this film is over. She is someone to keep an eye out for, a true star in the making.
As Daddy Waddell, Ron Eldard (Mystery, Alaska, Deep Impact), is also well cast. This is not a black and white performance but rather one of many shades of gray. Not your typical cardboard heavy, Eldard makes Waddell a man to be reckoned with, almost a force of nature. His love for Anney is as strong as his lack of control in regard to young Bone. Never sympathetic, he is simply and painfully real. It is a frightening performance and one that makes the character difficult to judge. Which to me, is the biggest paradox of all.
In support, strong work is also turned in by such actors of distinction as Glenne Headly (2 Days In The Valley, Dick Tracey, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Lyle Lovett (Cookie's Fortune, The Opposite Of Sex, The Player), Michael Rooker (The Bone Collector, Mallrats, Cliffhanger) and Dermot Mulroney (Go od-bye Lover, Kansas City, My Best Friend's Wedding).
At the center of it all is Director Anjelica Huston. Huston proves that she did indeed inherit some serious directing chops from her father, the great John Huston. Her camera moves with a fluidity that never shows itself off and never gets in the way of the performers. Not afraid of showing anything that happens to little Bone, her choices are almost clinical, never dipping into the area of the exploitive or the tawdry. Her work is extremely confident and I look forward to seeing more of her work behind the lens.
As a tele-film Bastard Out Of Carolina was shot full frame at the usual aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and that is what we get on this DVD release. Colors in the presentation are solid and lifelike with the overall image having a nice warmth and glow to it. Blacks and shadows held up rather well with there being no detectable pixel breakup or shimmer. There are some flaws with the source material but nothing that really detracts from the viewing experience. Just some nicks and scratches but they are evident and bear mentioning.
Sound is a solid Dolby Surround mix and its pretty good. This is a dialogue driven film and everything was heard clearly with all the period music presented to good effect. Nothing spectacular but everything that needs to be heard, is.
Many will not want to see this film because of its difficult and taxing subject matter. Indeed I put off watching the movie for just that reason. In the end though, I'm glad I gave the disc the time. It is very upsetting but also quite worthwhile. Still, this is not light entertainment fare and those searching for such are best to look elsewhere.
As a film I don't have any problems with Bastard Out Of Carolina but as a disc WinStar manages to put out another bare bones release that is difficult to recommend. With such intense, personal and controversial subject matter I would think a documentary or some kind of featurette would be in order. No such luck. Being Anjelica Huston's first foray behind the camera a commentary track would have been helpful as well. Again, it is not to be and it really is too bad.
Bastard Out Of Carolina deals with a subject matter that is distasteful, to the say the least and is unafraid to show the abuse inflicted upon little Bone. It is very well written, directed and acted. Upon several days of reflection I find myself haunted by the movie with images from it that continue to roll around in my head.
That much said, unless you are planning on using this for educational purposes in a classroom setting, I feel that Bastard Out Of Carolina falls in the definite rental category. It is a film that certainly demands to be seen but given the treatment from WinStar it does not justify a purchase.
Cast and crew of Bastard Out Of Carolina are acquitted of all charges and thanked by the court for shining a bright light on such dark and ugly subject matter. Director Anjelica Huston is given very high marks and this court hopes she continues to move in the very large footsteps of her father.
WinStar is, however convicted of gross neglect to the needs of the viewing public. For putting zero effort into their product they are sentenced to 5 to 10 with the option of early release if they change their ways. Any comments are welcome on this or any other judgment by emailing here. That is all I have. Have a nice day. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated